Besides movies, my other favorite thing to write about on this blog are the tv shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. A prequel series to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as he goes from an earnest-yet-crafty underdog to the thoroughly corrupt criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. Beside Jimmy is Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), his confidant-turned-wife and accomplished lawyer who discovers her own dark side as she assists Jimmy in his schemes. Better Call Saul also introduces characters like Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, and Hector Salamanca, expanding the world and setting the stage for Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul (BCS) wrapped on its sixth and final season in mid-August to critical and audience acclaim. Its finale cements the show’s legacy as equal to that of Breaking Bad (BB) and a tremendous achievement in its own right. But I’m not actually interested in analyzing the entire final season or finale here. Instead, I want to take a deeper look at both shows by focusing on the parallels between two characters: BCS’s Kim Wexler, and BB’s Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). I think the characters’ respective endings illuminate both shows’ ideas on guilt, atonement, and redemption. While neither show mentions God or has characters professing faith, BB and BCS are both deeply spiritual and obsessed with questions of morality. Despite them being firmly “secular”, there is much to gain from taking a Christian lens to both shows.
I also just really, really love both of these characters and want to talk about them.
So why compare Kim to Jesse? Jesse and Kim are the most moral characters in both shows. Both characters wrestle with their guilt and seek redemption. If the central flaw of both Walter White and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is their self-deception, Jesse and Kim’s central characteristic is their honesty about themselves. As the secondary protagonists and moral centers of their respective shows, Jesse and Kim’s stories are in direct conversation with one another. And in the penultimate episode of BCS, they even share a scene, flashing back to an unseen moment early in the BB timeline (as seen in the image above).
This scene is more than just fanservice, it serves to highlight these parallels that have been carefully built between the characters. At this moment, they pass by each other at a critical intersection: Kim is leaving Saul’s office after finalizing her divorce from Jimmy, on her way to leave Albuquerque for Florida. Meanwhile, Jesse is about to partner himself and Walt to Saul and take another definitive step down his Bad Choice Road, which will lead him by the end of the series to a place similar to Kim– leaving town for Alaska, a trail of destruction behind him, forever changed. But they are in very different places internally when each leaves Albuquerque.
Let’s do an overview of Kim’s storyline. Kim starts as a by-the-books, noble lawyer who has worked hard to leave behind her working-class roots to become successful and respected. She becomes disillusioned while working for a corporate firm and decides to quit and go pro-bono. She, like Jimmy, identifies as an underdog, as someone underestimated by the legal establishment. But as the show goes on, she also is revealed to be just as capable as Jimmy at scheming, eventually working with him to disgrace and debar Howard Hamlin (a rival lawyer). When that scheme ends up with criminal Lalo Salamanca killing Howard, Kim realizes how far she has allowed herself to go. She discovers a streak of cruelty within her that allowed her to do this to Howard. And she realizes how enabled she is with Jimmy; they bring out the worst in each other. With this crisis of conscience, she gives up her law license, breaks up with Jimmy, and moves to Florida.
In Florida, we see that Kim has committed herself to a self-imposed exile. She changes her appearance, losing her blonde power ponytail for a brunette dye job and shaggy haircut. She trades her power suits for jean skirts and t-shirts. Everything she says is reserved and unopinionated, never taking a stance or making a clear choice. She has muzzled herself. Her name is still Kim Wexler, but she’s only an echo of the person we once knew. The fate she tried to escape through her career she has now embraced as a form of self-punishment.
She finally goes back to Albuquerque to confess to Howard’s widow about the nature of his death and give an affidavit of her testimony, leaving her fate up to the law. After she does that, we see her breakdown crying on a bus (in a moment reminiscent of Jesse’s screams as he flees the compound in the final moments of BB). It’s cathartic– she’s finally come clean in every way that she can. But it’s also sobering– even all of that is not enough. Nothing she does can ever free her of the guilt. It will always haunt her because there has not been any external judgment on her.
In this lies a deeply embedded moral paradox in all of us: we like to be our own judge. That way, we can let ourselves off the hook. When I do something wrong, my first instinct is to justify, minimize, and ignore it. I love to proclaim myself “not guilty.”
Yet I think for each of us, there comes a time in our lives when we do something truly horrible, horrible enough that it forces us to finally see ourselves plainly; something we can’t justify, minimize, or ignore. And in these moments, being our own judge is the worst thing in the world. When we have to face how flawed we really are, we also must face how flawed our judgment really is. How can we forgive ourselves? We have no authority to do so. When faced with this, people tend to go one of two ways: harden their hearts and ignore the issue of conscience and guilt, or relentlessly self-condemn and self-hate as a sort of recompense.
Kim does the latter. Kim’s self-exile in Florida and later confession is her doing everything she can to avail herself of her guilt. But in a moral universe without a merciful, forgiving God who has provided some way of atonement, she can never truly be free. She is stuck being her own judge, and she knows she doesn’t have the authority to grant herself mercy.
Kim keeps her name, but loses her selfhood as penance.
Meanwhile, Jesse loses his name, but keeps his selfhood. At the end of El Camino, he is given a new name: Mr. Driscoll. The name “Jesse Pinkman” is dead, a ghost. But unlike Kim in Florida, Jesse/Driscoll doesn’t have to change who he is, his selfhood. He is changed; the events of the series have deeply changed his personality and worldview. But his change was growth, maturation at a heavy cost. That’s different from Kim’s intentional reinvention of herself, the meek character she’s chosen to play because she’s too afraid of who she is.
Externally, Jesse has permanent scars on his face, an eternal reminder of his past. They physically embody the PTSD and suffering he carries. But internally, Jesse has grown past many of the flaws that caused the events of BB. No longer is he naive and passive, instead, he takes action to fight for a better future. He is no longer obsessed with earning approval through macho posturing. Instead, he has developed true strength that stems from his love for others.
In other words: physically, he carries his past, but internally, he has a form of freedom from it. Kim is the opposite: externally, she has used her appearance to create distance from her past. But internally, she is shackled by it.
Why is this? Jesse feels the same remorse as Kim, so why is he able to leave Albuquerque in such a different state? Jesse objectively does much more harm throughout BB than Kim does in BCS (although we could argue about his agency vs Kim’s). But in both of them, we see the same desire to repent and change after coming to terms with what they’ve done. So how can Jesse go to Alaska and be at peace with himself? How can he allow himself a second start, while Kim languishes in a self-inflicted purgatory?
It comes down to the consequences they face. In the final episodes of BB, Walt hands Jesse over to captivity by Todd Alquist and his neo-nazi gang. Jesse is forced to cook meth, watches Todd kill his girlfriend Andrea, and lives under the threat of Todd killing Andrea’s son Brock. Jesse endures this methslavement for six months. By the time he gets to Alaska, he has had an “eye for an eye” treatment of his sins, or at least as much as he could ever reasonably get in this world. This hellish experience was the direct consequence of Jesse trying to atone for everything by teaming up with Hank. By teaming up with Hank, Jesse chose to accept the consequences of his actions and go down the path of making things right, and it led to this.
But when it’s all over, Jesse is, in a way, suddenly free. He has experienced pain and suffering like the suffering he caused for other people. He will always carry scars, internally and externally, from these experiences, yet Jesse has been able to “do the time.” He’s served the sentence the universe gave him; now he can have a second chance. Even though he never faced legal judgment, he faced a sort of metaphysical/divine power’s judgment, lived through it, and now can walk free and anew. It’s a severe mercy, but it’s still a mercy.
But Kim doesn’t get that severe mercy. She could have continued her life exactly as it was post-Howard. No one would have ever punished her. Yet Kim wants to be judged, because at least that way, she wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of having gotten away with something. One gets the sense that Kim hopes she would get caught, or something would happen to her.
In the essay “A Life Not Worth Living,” Jami L. Anderson summarizes Jesse’s arc, writing this:
“Jesse insists on the acknowledgment of right and wrong. But in doing so, he must acknowledge, both to himself and others, that he committed acts that are profoundly wrong, acts that cannot be undone. Moreover, the guilt he will feel for what he has done will, in all likelihood, never abate. But in taking full responsibility for his actions he will gain a sense of self as a moral person, as someone who has not only committed profoundly immoral actions but also of someone capable of tender, loving relationships and doing good deeds… Jesse, despite being nothing more than a social deviant user, nonetheless demanded and obtained moral agency along with full moral accountability as well as the privilege to make moral judgments.”
Kim, like Jesse, is a moral person, who insists on the acknowledgment of right and wrong. The lack of punishment she receives for her role in Howard’s death is a direct assault on her soul, because it acts in opposition to what she knows should be true about the world. She should have been punished, she deserved it. But the lack of consequences, of judgment, also means the impossibility of mercy. Mercy is not the lack of having your sin found out, it’s forgiveness and freedom despite being found out.
This is the same predicament Jesse finds himself in in BB. In the aftermath of killing Gale, he attends a recovery group, where the leader advocates for radical self-acceptance. Finally, Jesse explodes, confronting the leader and saying this:
Jesse knows there is some sort of objective right and wrong. So if Jesse knows, through his actions and guilt, that he is fundamentally wrong because has done wrong, then how can he accept himself? How can he be the judge of himself? He has no moral authority to be a judge, much less a judge with the authority to enact mercy. Being told he is the only person who can free himself, through self-acceptance, is therefore a horrific burden, a terrible trap. This is the exact position Kim is in when she leaves Albuquerque after Howard’s death.
Unlike Walt, who deludes himself to the very end; or Jimmy, who realizes who he is but doesn’t accept the weight of consequences until the very end (more on that in a minute); Kim and Jesse realize who they are and are ready to accept the consequences, because they want to change. If they accept the consequences, then they are acting in line with their identities as moral people, who live under a code of right and wrong. Jesse gets consequences for his actions, he accepts them, and then he can accept the grace to move on and allow himself a second chance. But in Kim’s case, the universe doesn’t give her any kind of punishment; and there is no one to atone for her. So she must do it herself. But she is an incapable judge, so she is incapable of real atonement and giving herself a real second chance. So she lives in this black-and-white world; a ghost of herself.
Yet, there is an interesting twist to Kim’s story. Throughout both shows, Kim and Jesse’s goodness are like knives in Walt and Jimmy’s backs. Their mere presences convict Walt and Jimmy of their sin, yet they refuse to believe it and choose to keep going. In BB, Walt does everything he can to smoother Jesse’s goodness, as a way to protect himself and his delusions. It’s only in Walt’s final moments that something akin to pity allows him to free Jesse.
But while Kim breaking up with Jimmy helps push him over the edge into becoming the Saul we know in BB, in the actual final moments of BCS, in the post-BB timeline, Kim tells Jimmy to confess. And he does. When she shows up in the courtroom at his hearing, he sees her and confesses. Because he still loves her, and he’s willing to go to prison to have her love him back, or at least respect him again. And in their final moments, sharing a cigarette in his cell, there is an unspoken reconciliation. Two characters, completely stripped of all facade, who know the truth about themselves and each other completely, are at peace because they have nothing to hide. All their sins have been laid out and they’re both facing the consequences. And in that, they can finally love one another fully and honestly.
Again, there is no God in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe. In the absence of one, we see each character trying to figure out how to atone and forgive themselves in ways only a righteous God can. Only the characters that submit themselves to a larger, divine force of righteous judgment–and mercy– find any kind of freedom. Walter White never experiences this, but Jesse does. And Jimmy, in a small way, does get to experience this freedom, even when he’s behind bars; because of Kim and her example. And when Kim walks away at the very end of BCS, we can hope she is leaving her purgatory behind, ready to accept a new beginning for herself.
– Madeleine D.
Anderson, Jami L. “A Life Not Worth Living.” 103-118. Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series, edited by David P. Pierson, Lexington Books, 2014